This is what happens when you give a knight a shovel. You end up, curiously enough, with one hell of a game. The $311,502 from Kickstarter sure didn’t hurt, but most of the credit goes to Yacht Club Games for taking the old skeletons from the games of yesteryear and shaking loose all the good bits for you to play.
It was easy to overlook Shovel Knight. Retro as an aesthetic has been raging on for the past several years now and is unlikely to slow down until the end of forever. Retro as gameplay has coincided with that pixelated wave of nostalgia, but it so rarely gets executed with the care necessary to make it worthwhile.
And by that, I mean the game is being made tolerable. It’s the common fault of looking back on the past to gloss over the monstrously proportioned gaps in usability and intuitiveness and head straight to fawning over what used to be. It’s not just getting the pinpoint accuracy of jumping simultaneously over and between moving obstacles or figuring out the stoic patterns of oversized bosses that made those old platformers so identifiable but the way all those little avenues of ingenuity come together.
That aggregation of mechanical design facets included all the old faults as well, things that have been rectified and sorted out as the years go on and developers build upon older generations of experience and knowledge. Shovel Knight managed to infuse modern sensibilities into the framework of something distinctly older.
Its mechanics are undoubtedly ripped from the handbook of 8-bit sidescrollers: moving platforms, a DuckTales-esque pogo shovel, head-bopping enemies, etc. But then you get platforming puzzles that are definitely of a newer ilk, forcing you to alternate between traversal and combat all in a single moving breath or limited sight paths that require sustained spatial awareness.
There’s a fidelity to the movement that comes across as singularly of an analog control but the gradient upon which you move is of a digital era. It mashes up well against the amalgam of remixed gameplay, further deepening its seat on a throne of beautifully blended ideals. There’s the raw, almost reckless sensation of old school level and enemy design merging seamlessly with a current day concern of innate progression and smoothing iterations.
Shovel Knight takes the pillars that so many other games take for granted and strips them bare, building instead with them rather than haphazardly on top of them. It steeps in the foundational essence of well-worn retro platformers and lathers up into a new, fresh-faced piece of the old and the modern. It manages to extract the utility from nostalgia instead of just a tiny palette of colors and shapes up into Shovel Knight, my number three game of the year.